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Hannity and Limbaugh: The Worst of America?

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The Conservative radio pundit industrial-complex is led by the most successful radio talk host of all time, Rush Limbaugh, currently riding out a quarter-billion dollar contract. His successor-apparent is Sean Hannity, followed by the likes of Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Mark Levin and dozens more who are proven successes in selling advertising and generating profits, both nationally and in many local markets.

These broadcasters are careful not to call themselves newspersons or journalists, preferring the "disclaimer" that they are merely "entertainers". Because this blending of personality, passion and salesmanship intentionally and repetitively massages current events and historical fact to promote a singular political viewpoint, it plainly meets any historical definition of propaganda.

Hannity and Limbaugh omit basic and essential counterpoints to their arguments, carefully prune callers and routinely ignore many important national stories critical of NeoCon politicians and their cronies in business. The most listened-to broadcasters on the air today by far, should they have any responsibility to meet "traditional" broadcasting ethics when discussing politics on public airwaves? If so, what should be the criteria and who would be the enforcer/arbiter for this?

This thread invites discussion on what broadcasting in America should be, in light of what it's come to. America abandoned government-imposed regulation on journalistic balance in 1987 and today the biggest player in radio boldly ignores any appearance of self-regulation in the representation of our society's actual sociopolitical balance.

Creating a Warm and Fuzzy NeoCon Habitat

Imagine a radio safe haven where you can come to hear the latest political developments and discussion, but where, like the Harlem Globetrotters, the same side always wins. First, Rush and Hannity will offer pure right wing solace, insulating you from the complexities of counterpoints. Then, you can even join in and blow off some steam in bashing the opposition.

Hannity greets pals saying "you're a great American" while labeling his foes "un-American" with a hair trigger, making clear the sides and boundaries on his air, in spite of the famous American creed "Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism" (Thomas Paine). Hannity's invective pits Americans against Americans deliberately and publicly, a line not crossed by former generations of American broadcasters. Should those of us who hide relevant items and incite hateful rhetoric be allowed to continue without as much as public censure?

Though presently legal, the problem with Rush, Sean and the others lay in their professional and personal ethics, withholding balance as a choice to increase persuasiveness over a public they deem incapable of processing information (and coming to the same conclusions).

This is particularly shifty when they speak of morality, "character" or "values" because, unlike schools and most parents, they condone the smear job, impugning the dignity of their ideological opponents with a menu of "dirty trick" tactics: guilt-by-association, overgeneralization, exaggeration, name-calling and fear mongering using nebulous, unspecified predictions of chaos and calamity. At the same time they claim to be presenting "the truth" in a "fair and balanced" way, they shuffle off the most basic responsibilities of public reporting - presenting the whole story.

When public radio was first introduced after World War I, the government knew well how the new medium might be abused. It was therefore regulated to promote responsible, socially uplifting programming only, including news, weather, entertainment and public service messages. To prevent the "noise pollution" advertising represented, spots were limited during family listening hours. During the Great Depression however, station owners succumbed to round-the-clock advertising as the only way to stay afloat. Once given this toe-hold, sponsors began to leverage their financial clout to influence programming.

This leads us to questions of responsibility on public airwaves. For decades, the FCC has sought to impose fines on broadcasters like Howard Stern for scatological content, purportedly policing radio for social appropriateness, but have not considered the civic impact of lopsided political speech - not only on our young, but anyone underinformed on a given issue.

Leaving America in The Dark

Limbaugh and Hannity know there is more then one side to a story, but choose to present only the news and opinions they select. This intellectual dishonesty keeps things cut and dry, unlike real life. Personally, I hope my daughters can learn to understand the many complex sides of an issue, discerning as Oscar Wilde said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple". If Sean Hannity hopes the same for his children, he certainly does not for his listeners, those who patronize his sponsors, vote and contribute as he indicates, and evangelize his causes against his opponents.

As parents, journalistic integrity should be an important moral issue. It is the responsibility of any ethical person, including commentator-entertainers to refrain from knowingly presenting relevant facts in an incomplete manner. For example, Hannity was recently surveying young voters, asking them to name a single accomplishment of Barack Obama's. No respondent listed a single accomplishment. Sean intimated that Obama's success stems solely from his charm and that his presidential qualifications should be questioned. Yet Hannity failed to ask the same voters to list a single accomplishment of John McCain, Hillary Clinton or any other politician, conflating general political ignorance with ominous misgivings over Obama. Each and every day, he presents discussions in this same logical vacuum.

Basic fourth grade essay writing teaches children to consider all available information, weighing multiple sides with logic and intelligence. Ninth grade debating teaches kids to challenge assumptions, scrutinize information carefully and construct reasoned conclusions only after arguments have been vetted in open discussion. Journalism 101 instructs us to gather information objectively, reporting multiple perspectives responsibly so as to allow listeners to formulate their own opinions.

These disciplines also teach the history of "yellow journalism", a blight on American society in which competing newspaper publishers slanted the news to increase profits, prestige or readership, intertwining commerce and politics in dereliction of journalistic ethics. Worse still was the growing scourge of propaganda -- state-sponsored stories planted in media to persuade or mislead, intentionally fomenting fear or hate.

The original 1928 book Propaganda was first published by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who made considerable use of his uncle's revolutionary psychological insights. Considered "the father of public relations", Bernays fabricated news and hatched publicity stunts for decades, aiding the U.S. government and largest corporations, including the staging of fake rallies of support, and fake riots in third world countries to justify military thuggery. Cited by Hitler and Goebbels as a major influence, Bernays showed how to crystallize public opinion by simultaneously cross-applying fear and intimidation with promises of security, familial warmth and inclusion - the classic good guy/bad guy manipulation. Essential to this is the flow of information - who gets heard and what is said.

After World War II, a growing anti-propaganda tradition in the U.S. culminated in the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, outlawing domestic dissemination of deceptive materials. Then, the Fairness Doctrine of 1949 would designate radio stations with FCC licenses as "public trustees", required to make "every reasonable attempt to cover contrasting points of view". This mandated equal time for subjects of personal attacks and balanced access for political candidates, among other provisions.

Enforcement of these laws would be lax, however, demonstrated by the "red scare" era, the U.S. government and surrogate forces sought to galvanize public sentiment against the threat of communism. The growth of the polling industry helped ease America's collective paranoia, reassuring us that not as many people actually shared the gripping fear of danger the government told us was imminent.

But when Rush Limbaugh went on the air, it was a new day in media. The Fairness Doctrine was struck down, and a for-profit political spin machine revved up, preaching a subset of Conservative values at variance with Goldwater or Eisenhower, but which coincided well with arms build-ups, aggressive foreign policy stances including covert operations, anti-environmental causes, Ayn Rand-style defenses of wealth accumulation - and of course, selling consumer goods and services.

Taking Root in Hometown, USA

Through the late 80s, the top rated morning drive-time shock jock Howard Stern, had already pioneered the art of on-air "legalized" slander in the post-Fairness Doctine era, viciously excoriating public figures he found vapid or who he felt had copied his shtick. Indeed, Stern claimed that Limbaugh's show took off only after Rush learned from him "how to grow balls".

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(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)

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